When You Should Go Back to the Future

Some of you may have heard me say (via the Twitter) that I don’t like historical novels, particular in YA. Then, as if by a miracle (or sheer hypocrisy), I may have tweeted last week that I had requested a historical YA manuscript. I surprised myself with this, and asked myself why this particular query stood out where the many, many others did not. Here’s what I came up with. (Editors note: For the purpose of this blog post, “historical novel” will mean any novel that takes place in the past, not necessarily centered on a specific event.)

This Story Can’t Be Told in Any Other Time.
The triumphs and struggles of human beings on a personal level transcends any decade. When deciding when to set your story, ask yourself if this story could be told just as easily in present-day. The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, cannot. The Vampire Diaries, however, can. It wouldn’t matter if Elena is a young hippie from the ’60s, a tech-crazy gamer in the ’90s, or (as it stands) fairly popular former cheerleader in present-day Mystic Falls. Likewise, it wouldn’t matter if Stefan and Damon were turned into vampires in the 1400s, 1800s, or last week. The plot is independent from personal attributes.

Most historical novels are centered on a historical event, making it so the characters’ lives have to be effected by it (i.e. the Nazis are coming, the British are coming, the atomic bomb is coming, etc.) That’s not to say that your non-event-focused novel wouldn’t still work in a different setting. If your characters are products of their time – say, sexual repression in the ’50s, sexual expression in the ’60s, or greed and excess in the ’80s – then those settings are just as important to the story as the plot or characters.

Too often, however, character-driven novels, or even plot-driven novels, are set in a time period that does not add to the writer’s intentions. It is simply there. Because references and technology and general language change from decade to decade (or year to year, if it’s this decade), most of the time these other time periods distract from, rather than enrich, the story.

The Novel Was Not Any More or Less Difficult to Write.
I see this more in YA. Or more accurately, when the generation gap between Writer and Intended Audience is wider than ten years. I was wondering why so many YA queries were being set in the ’80s and ’90s until I realized the pattern – the writers were teens during those decades. It’s true that I didn’t experience high school through a Facebook lens and that most of us did not even have cell phones in our YA days, let alone MG days. Like most people my age and older, I wouldn’t even begin to speculate how strange (and normal) it is now to grow up in world where no one thinks twice about having a “public life.”

But, no one said writing was easy.

It’s not your job as a writer to recreate your own experience, slap a historical label on it, and think teens will be able to relate. Sometimes they might, but usually they want someone to reflect their experience. YA and MG exists because teens are people too. They get adults telling them about how their generation doesn’t understand “real life” all the time. They turn to books to escape all that. And unlike previous generations, they don’t have to yawn their way through their parents’ bookshelves anymore.

The writer’s own experience is not always the reason contemporary stories get thrown to the past. If you’re writing a mystery, think of how much more suspense could be sustained if there was no Internet. You don’t quite get the same dark intrigue when the answer to “Let’s see who you really are!” is just “Oh, I already Googled him.” It’s true, you lose a little with technology and it is hard to know how to work around it or use it to your advantage. But like in all facets of life – especially in publishing – ignoring technology does not make it go away.

The Year Is Not Overemphasized.
After you’ve considered the above, and you still decide that your novel needs to be set in a year that is not the current one, remember to let your story speak for itself. Otherwise, your completely necessary setting ends up becoming a gimmick. Nobody wins when something is a gimmick. Even TV shows like That ’70s Show ended up abandoning that premise in favor of actual character development. Instead of a parade of bell-bottoms, disco mockery, and vague jokes about oil embargoes, the show ended up being about a group of young people who rarely even mentioned the decade they were living in. They just wore Kiss t-shirts and bad hairstyles.

Once you’ve established what year your novel is taking place, trust your reader to know that. Overemphasis happens more – at least when I see it – when it’s recent history, things the author has lived through. Avoid sentences like “Tiffany spilled her Crystal Pepsi all over her new L.A. Gear high-tops, making her late for her jazzercise class.” If your story takes place in the ’50s, your character doesn’t necessarily need to try on a poodle skirt or swoon over Bobby Rydell. Over-referencing a decade will only take your reader out of your story, which is the last thing any writer, agent, or editor wants.

Another sentence that makes me want to get out my proverbial red pen often happens in nonfiction or in 1st person. It’ll go something like “Back then, we didn’t have [insert technological advancement here].” These sentences are always awkward to read and they are detrimental to the story for two reasons:
1) They abruptly speak directly to the reader, who may or may not have been spoken to before this moment.
2) They remind the reader they are being told a story, rather than have them experience it for themselves.

On the whole, I suppose I do have to admit I enjoy historical fiction. Sure it’s not my favorite, but when it’s done well and done for a specific purpose, it can be really great. Personally, I like stories to be told in the present if only because I prefer stories that are character-driven and those are the stories that are timeless.

My broken-record advice on this blog though is always to write the story you want to write. You’re the only who can decide the most necessary way to tell your story. But forcing a setting on your readers might end up being a fruitless attempt. What your readers take from your story is out of your hands, so you might as well focus your efforts on telling it in the best possible way.

Graduation

As most of you know, my love of YA is not limited to the page. I am a huge fan of teen-centric dramas and WB-esque shows as long as they are clever, honest, well-written, or just plain awesome (hello, Vampire Diaries!) However, there is a common thread in these series – even in the cases of my most beloved shows, which I’ll get to later – that I think needs addressing. The issue I’m referring to is “Graduation.” Or, more accurately, not showing what realistically happens to your main characters upon graduating from high school. Some grievances:

Let’s Get Married: Before I state my case, I would like to acknowledge all of the happily married high school sweethearts out there. I know you exist. My parents are perfect examples of this actually. Now, that said – please stop making your love interests get married! Sadly, the only literary reference to this unfortunate plotline that I can think of right now are Bella and Edward from Twilight. Their inevitable marriage is depressing for many reasons, but what I’m focusing on here is their age (well, her age in this case). Much like our reigning literary couple, Corey & Topanga (Boy Meets World), Zack & Kelly (SBTB), and Liz & Max (Roswell) are only a few examples of TV teens who decided that getting a marriage license before getting a college degree was the logical next step in their lives. This is so dangerous for teenagers. It’s saying “you will never meet anyone better and you will always have the same standards as you had in high school.” Or, it breeds the thinking that “there is nothing else after high school worth exploring on your own anyway, so why not just get married?” It’s incredibly sad that series like these – with seemingly driven, intelligent characters –  have perpetuated this ideology. I realize “marriage” doesn’t have to mean the ball-and-chain institution that its associated with, but marriage is not something that should be idealized as purely romantic either. No one is more impulsive than a teenager and no one falls in love more often than a teenager. These are not people who should have things like mortgages and babies and joint checking accounts.

Parents As Enablers: Contrary to what Will Smith told us, it seems that in teen dramas where the teenagers are acting completely irrationally, emotionally, and, well, like teenagers, the parents completely understand. They will say things like “I know it will be hard to be away from [boyfriend or girlfriend], but this is your decision.” In real life, college-bound teens do usually opt for college, but in teen dramas, they will always choose the love interest if given the option. Writers, assuming your YA parents are alive and well, let them be parents. They don’t always understand what the teen is going through because they’ve already grown out of such behavior. Want to get married at 18? Want to throw away your full ride to Oxford so you can go to the local community college with your best friend? Most parents, if they have their child’s best interest at heart, would not say “it’s your decision.” They would say “you get your ass on that plane.” Parents don’t have to be a villain, nor should they be portrayed that way, but they should be logical when the teen is not.

There’s No Place Like Home: Destined-for-greatness, Veronica Mars, and teenage genius, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, can go anywhere and do anything. Straight-A students with acceptance letters from the Ivy League to universities abroad to super amazing internships. With so many options, why not choose to stay in your hometown? Er… right? OK, so Willow preferred to battle evil on the Hellmouth, but I mean… there’s another one in Cleveland! Live outside your box for a while, Willow. The literary character I thought this might happen to was Hermione Granger. I didn’t want Ron holding her back, which I fear is what ultimately happened. Seriously, YA & teen drama writers, what is so bad about getting out of dodge, at least for college, if not forever? Again, with few exceptions, leaving your hometown is a necessary experience and teenagers, who no doubt get enough pressure from their parents to stay close to home, shouldn’t need to see their favorite teen characters make decisions that are usually not in their best interest.

Love Ya Like a Sis, Don’t Ever Change: This was written in my yearbook just like I’m sure it was written in yours (if you’re a girl who graduated in the late ’90s/early ’00s anyway). I’ll forgive the “LYLAS” part, but “don’t ever change?” Sorry, but I prefer to grow up and not continue to think and act the same way I did when I was a teenager. My beloved Buffy and Veronica fell victim to the trend of going to college in a group, which is how I know that no writer, no matter how good, is safe from doing this. Other teen shows have notoriously high-school heavy freshman years too (more recently done by Gossip Girl). I understand that building an audience for a TV show takes time and it’s very risky to throw away characters audiences have come to love when moving the main character to college. There’s a reason why 90210 and Saved By the Bell – much like the popular cliques their characters represented – peaked in high school. But when something is well-written, smart, and easily able to take the next step into “crossover” territory, I don’t see any reason why writers shouldn’t offer a realistic look at what happens to most people after high school – complete departure with occasional Facebook stalkage (or, in my case, AIM). I can count on one hand the number of friends from high school who I still consider actual friends, and my life is hardly lacking because of it. People grow and change, and more often than not, the people who were your entire world suddenly don’t fit into yours anymore. Portraying this as something negative rather than liberating not only holds teens back, but it stunts your characters’ growth as well.

Life only begins at 18, yet so many teen dramas keep their characters in the dark about adulthood. Graduation may be the end of life as they know it, but it’s not the end of their lives. As writers, you should write for your intended audience. Just remember not to create a Neverland for them. Chances are, they will break up with the person they are so in love with and the best friend who they can’t imagine living without will be just as fine without them as they are without him or her. These things are downers to a YA audience; I get that. But just like one’s initial fear of the unfamiliar, the anxiety and sadness passes and gives way to realizing how much is still ahead. Unless you are writing a tragedy, don’t let your characters peak in high school. Even if you don’t write them into adulthood, keep them open, ready, and excited for their next step.

(PS: The number of things Buffy did get right (in both the high school years and beyond) is enough for an entirely different blog post, which I may or may not write in the future.)

Pitches and Strikes

If you don’t read agent Jennifer Laughran’s blog, 1) why not?! and 2) you are currently missing out on some great advice if you are planning to attend a conference. While I have no overall conference-attending advice, I thought I’d talk about pitching in person because this past Saturday I participated in the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam, and it was my first experience with writers pitching to me. Basically, every writer got three minutes to pitch their project to an agent, and once those three minutes were up, a bell rang and then they were sent to be killed. OK, not really. They just had to move on to another agent. In the two-hour, non-stop pitch sessions, the writers I met ranged from all-business to nervous wreck to deer-in-headlights. It made me wonder, what must they be like on job interviews?

There were, of course, a few gems who, even if I didn’t always request their manuscripts, maintained the ideal level of professionalism while still being natural and personable. In case you’re attending another conference that requires pitching to an agent, here are some of the extreme cases I encountered to help you remain the one thing agents want you to be: yourself.

The Overachiever: This writer is ALL business. They are Tracy Flick-meets-Hermione Granger. What’s that? You want to exchange a handshake and a hello? No such luck. Not even a smile. This writer wants to sell, sell, sell. To them, a handshake wastes precious “getting out my binder and carefully typed notes” time and a hello is just another word for “I will now read you my entire query letter, including bio, in under three minutes.” An agent will respond positively to this only if the book sounds like something he or she wants to read. But, overall, it’s daunting and a little scary.

The Walking Nerve Ending: Writers, agents are people too. More importantly, we’re usually the socially awkward bookish people. No need to fear us! Besides, when your voice shakes, we can’t hear what your project is about. All we want to do is hug you instead. Ssh… we’re all just people, and agents need you as much as you need them. If one of us doesn’t particularly want what you’ve written, well then on to the next one! It’ll be OK.

The BFF: This is the opposite of The Overachiever. They might have come prepared with a binder, but you’d never know it because they are just so excited to meet you and are such a fan of [something agent’s done]. This writer might use the phrase “I feel like I know you!” and you wonder for a moment if they will give you a hug or invite you out for a drink after, neither of which are appropriate. It is always a good idea to be approachable and pleasant, especially if you follow an agent on Twitter, read their blog, or have met them before. But you do not want to appear so familiar that you lose your sense of professional boundaries.

The Lost Puppy: Another label for deer-in-headlights. This writer is adorably nervous, but not in a debilitating way like the The Walking Nerve Ending. Instead, this writer stammers and stares until, finally, they’re able to get out their one-sentence pitch just under three minutes. They just need a little love and encouragement, and maybe a gentle shove to keep moving, lest they get hit by a car (or, in this case, a bell signifying their time is up).

The Fast Talker: As someone who fears public speaking more than death, I can relate to The Fast Talker. I know what it’s like to think oh god if I just get through this as quickly as possible it’ll all be over and I’ll never have to speak again! It’s a form of anxiety that I have trouble calling others out on, in case I am labeled a hypocrite. However, I’ll offer some tips on what got me through the few times I wasn’t able to feign illness to get out of speaking (which, yes, I’ve done). 1) Know what you’re talking about. In this case, it’s easy because what you’re talking about is your book. If you can speak confidently and with authority on something, there’s no reason to be nervous. 2) Before it’s your turn to speak, take a break and count to three. It’s pretty textbook, I know, but it tends to work.

The Mumbles McMumbleson: This is the writer who lacks confidence and just wants to disappear. They know finding an agent is important, so they have to do this, but by god, do they really need to do this in person? The answer of course is no. No one is forcing writers to attend conferences and meet agents in person. But conferences are important for writers and they chose to be there, so speak up and speak clearly!

Like I said, there were definitely some gems and I’m very excited to read the manuscripts I requested. The Pitch Slam was intense, but fun, which is how many of the writers involved saw it too. See, agents are just like you! No need to fear. When all is said and done, just be yourself. We only want you for your books anyway…

You Are Not Original (and that’s OK)

We want to believe we are unique little snowflakes. As writers, we create, and we want to believe that what we create is the most original concept that readers will ever see. Nine times out of ten, this just won’t happen. We are not snowflakes. We are barely a box of multi-colored pencils. And for writers, that’s just fine. In most fiction, genre fiction especially, the same premises get repeated. It’s not plagiarism; it’s just normal. In fact, it’s how some sub-genres form in the first place. That said, most of these books use this basic, universal premise as simply a guide. How the writer chooses to enrich that structure is what separates good writing from the forgettable, regrettable wannabes.

I don’t know what it is about January so far, but it seems as if everyone’s New Year’s resolution was to finish their novel and start querying agents right away. While I appreciate the motivation, this is more damaging than good. To put it another way, the number of queries I’m getting per day this month are almost double that of what I was getting in December. The number of manuscripts I’m requesting, however, has more than halved. This is in part because of what I’m talking about above. People seem to be so quick to get out their manuscripts that they’ve forgotten to enrich their basic plot to make it stand out.

Before you send out your query to agents, make sure that when you sum up your book in those few, precious sentences, there is more to it than what’s implied.

Paranormal Romance & Non-romance: I recently tweeted, “In a severely crowded paranormal market, your plot needs to be more complex than ‘MC becomes/is/loves a non-human & must deal.'” I can’t stress this enough, especially since I get more queries for paranormal than any other genre. Agents and editors only want “the next Twilight” in terms of wanting another massively successful series that will make boatloads of cash for everyone involved. This does not mean we’re asking for “girl falls in love with a vampire and is conflicted about it.” It’s been done to death (undeath?)! It’s also not a twist if the person who falls in love with the non-human is a boy, nor does the female character become “strong” simply by being a vamp, wolf, zombie, etc. Sorry.

Literary fiction: People in the suburbs are not what they appear to be. Marriages that are seemingly perfect are actually rooted in resentment and possible adultery. Professor at a liberal arts college has an affair with a student. People living in Brooklyn do things that are seemingly more meaningful than what you’re doing (yep, looking at you, 90% of literary fiction authors!). Sure, these premises continue to work in literary fiction (hey, I still buy them), but unless your last name is, in fact, Franzen, you will need to give your mournful suburbanites a little more depth.

Mystery/Horror: While these two genres are not the same thing, I’ve been getting a lot of cross-genre queries lately that read like tag lines from teen scary movies from the ’90s. A group of people win a trip to a haunted house. A person who believes in ghosts begins seeing them for real. A killer runs rampant in a small town and is more often than not, the main character’s boyfriend/best friend/long-lost relative. Usually all of these premises are offered with a wink. They’ll provide a character who speaks for the audience by his or her cynicism and references to classic movies. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. It’s fun to write and it’s fun for the reader. But try not to rely solely on formula here. It’s harder to resist the temptation to do so in these genres, so make sure to add a little twist here and there that strays from the expected. What’s even more difficult is that in these particular genres, the “unexpected” is now what’s expected. (Thanks a lot, Hitchcock!)

Contemporary YA:Your main character’s parents are dead or otherwise absent, so he or she grows up too fast by either a) being overly responsible, mature, and “good” or b) drinks and parties, but is still wiser & wittier beyond his or her years. Then they meet or come across a catalyst for their path to self-actualization. Congratulations, you have a character portrait! But, this is not an engaging story by itself.

Science fiction: A boy (usually a boy) who is an orphan (usually an orphan) must defend his planet/galaxy/race/family because he is The One. A quest is involved. He also has some personal connection to the Force of Evil. This is called Every Sci-fi and Fantasy Novel You’ve Ever Read or Movie You’ve Ever Seen. Luke, Harry, Ender, Frodo, Jesus, Perseus – all of our heroes have the same story when it’s boiled down to one sentence. Think of how these stories stand out from each other before starting your next project. (To my fellow nerds, please refrain from yelling at me about why I’m wrong to compare Frodo to Perseus.)

Dystopian: The world as we know it has been destroyed by a virus! The world as we know it has been destroyed by climate change! The world as we know it has been destroyed by economic turmoil! The novel has been destroyed by Find & Replace! Writers, no matter how the world as we know it ends and no matter what the world you’re writing about is like, make what happens in that world worth caring about. Romance? Adventure? Mystery subplot completely unrelated to how the world has changed? All examples of how to bring your dystopian (another insanely crowded market) to the next level.

I could go on to give the basic formula for “chick lit,” but I’ll save you all some time and say that no one should use that phrase anymore and please don’t write it anyway. Thanks 🙂

Have a good weekend, everyone!

George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin

I’m back, friends! I spent a week in 65-degree upstate New York where I escaped NYC craziness and worked on my YA-in-progress. Despite a pretty great week, I have to say it’s good to be home. (What can I say, I loves me some craziness. The return to 90-degree humidity, however, is a different story…)

While writing this week, I noticed that I write a lot of dialogue. Or at least more dialogue than narration. This is neither good nor bad in my opinion, but it got me thinking about writing conversations in general. I’m a big dialogue person – old-fashioned Bogie and Bacall banter, I eat it up. But how much does it really matter? For me, it’s the first thing I notice when reading or watching something, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most important thing I look for. When reading requested material, queries, what-have-you, I usually see one of two extremes when dialogue doesn’t work. I’ll call it the George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin problem.

Explanation.

Take George Lucas. Star Wars has proven decade after decade that Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away resonates with audiences, regardless of generation. He’s reinvented the franchise yet again with Clone Wars, which is currently being enjoyed by the grandchildren of those who were first shocked over the identity of Luke’s dad. (Don’t worry; I won’t ruin it for you.)

Yet, one thing George Lucas is notoriously guilty of (which he’s even accepted himself) is that he cannot write dialogue. Like, at all. Sure, Han’s “I know” to Leia’s “I love you” was pretty badass, but given the rest of the lackluster attempts at romance, I think this gem was simply the result of Lucas’ inability to convey genuine emotion.

Lucas proves that you don’t need deeply meaningful conversation, witty banter, or even a college-level vocabulary to engage a massive audience. It should come as a surprise to no one that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, but consider for a minute if it was a novel (and also ignore the many novelizations that already exist). After a few pages of “I’ll be careful”/”You’ll be dead!” exchanges, I think I’d be ready to throw in the towel. Some things just don’t translate to the page with the same effect.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Now, before I explain the “problem” I have with a person whom I consider a master of dialogue, I will state that The West Wing remains one of the greater written shows of all time, and that I’ve loved everything Sorkin has ever written and/or created. With one exception – Studio 60. So, that will be my focus here. Studio 60, to me, represents exactly what not to do as a writer, even if you’re an incredibly gifted writer. 

Sorkin has a philosophy that one should never talk down to one’s audience. This is evident in his writing, and he stated it blatantly in Studio 60. I agree with him to an extent, but in the case of this “missing of the mark,” let’s say, he manages to take his trademark smart, witty, heightened language and turn it into whiny, preachy, condescending monologue. Even in near-perfect shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has been guilty of preaching. Since I usually fell into the choir he was he preaching to, I never really minded, but there were times where even I felt the eye roll-worthiness of some of Bartlett and Leo’s seemingly unrelated anecdotes in reference to world-changing decisions.

With Studio 60, Sorkin took his preaching to a new level. Clearly still pissed at NBC for firing him from The West Wing, he managed to create an entire show of monologues that made fairly accurate points about unfairness, network greed, and censorship, among others. What he forgot to do while making these Obama-level speeches was to develop an actual plot. Stories and characters on television are created through dialogue, which is another thing he forgot to write. Or, at least, forgot to write it well. Hence, the show failed.

Lucas’ ability to create a world in which people want to lose themselves is a testament to his talent as a writer. Whereas Sorkin’s apparent inability to use words for anything other than wit and intellect is a testament to his particular talent. On the page, however, a balance needs to be struck, whether you’re writing commercial or literary fiction. Exceptions are always made, depending on genre and style, but (for me, at least) I like seeing both factors given equal, or near-equal, weight.

How important is dialogue to you, and how do you approach it as writers? Does every word count toward the plot, or do you let your characters speak tangentially, the way people do in real life? Tell me how you balance your story, dialogue, and character development.

Voice, Balance, & How to Avoid Mary Sues

I’ve been thinking a bit about voice and, more specifically, how do I make mine distinct? I’m taking a break from my role as agent today and giving my semi-annual appearance here as a writer. As some of you might know, I’ve been struggling through my first attempt at fiction. The main characters are based on people in real life, myself being one of them. But I’m finding that as I further develop the plot, my character is changing from its real life roots. Suddenly, I’m not writing “fictional me” anymore; I’m writing someone else completely.

Creative Writing 101 will tell writers to “find their voice.” An author’s voice is a way to personalize their fiction, give it their stamp, and is a way to connect their novels even when they are completely independent from each other. Style, tone, use of language… all of these go into the ever-important “voice.”

Something important for writers to ask themselves is whether their voice and their characters’ voices are two separate entities. Fiction writers base characters on themselves all the time, and (as I mentioned, here) drawing from what you know can often lead to the best ideas. But where is the line between you and them, and how do you keep that balance?

As authors, your writing style comes through in descriptions, narration, themes, and types of characters you create. Those are what readers will associate with you when they recognize your name in bookstores. Once you create your characters and settings, however, you need to switch your focus every time your character says or does anything. Some questions to consider when making this switch:

  • – What type of person is my main character?
  • – Is this how I would react in this situation, or is this how my character would?
  • – Do I use this phrase all the time, or can I allow my character to say it as well?
  • – Given the context and tone of the novel, should my character act this way?
  • – Is my character’s name just my own name spelled backwards?

Not being able to find a balance between your own voice and your characters’ can lead to the unwanted evolution of Mary Sues. If you want to know where the term comes from, feel free to Wiki (fun back story). But, basically, a Mary Sue is a stand-in for the author in a piece of fiction.

Mary Sues are frowned upon and ridiculed by your literary peers, but they are by no means deal-breakers. I can think of two massively popular novels out right now that feature these characters: Twilight and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Mikael Blomkvist is essentially if Stieg Larsson was cast as James Bond (literally) and Bella Swan looks and acts exactly like Stephanie Meyer except omgeveryguywantsher, including the two hottest guys on the planet!

Before you say to yourself, “Yes! NYT Bestseller list, here I come!” remember this: These books are insanely popular because their stories resonated with bajillions of readers, not because these characters were particularly engaging, or even well-crafted. The characters who are memorable and more often discussed from these novels are Edward, Jacob, and Lisbeth – the ones who required more thought from the authors.

Next time you sit down to write, think about your main character. Is he or she just you in a different context? Hopefully you avoid the Mary Sue trap, but if you absolutely can’t, is your story strong enough to back it up?

Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in query letters that does not involve overused supernatural beings or the dreaded rhetorical question. This trend is new to me, but maybe other agents have experienced it. In several letters, the authors, those who happen to be teenagers, are apologizing for their ages. 

As far as query trends go, this is probably the least annoying, but writers – young writers – don’t do this! Apologizing for yourself not only weakens you right out of the gate, but it’s also completely unnecessary. I mean, did Mozart ever say “Sorry guys, I know I’m only six years old, but I’m about to blow your mind?” No. All he did was blow people’s minds! No apology offered or needed.

Evidence of amazing teen writers is everywhere. S.E. Hinton, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Nick McDonell, and Christopher Paolini were all successful teen authors. And the new class featuring the likes of Steph Bowe (GIRL SAVES BOY) and Kody Keplinger (THE DUFF) looks pretty impressive too! (Both writers were highlighted during the Glass Cases “Teen Writers Week” back in April – see Steph’s profile and Kody’s profile for more info on them!) I doubt today’s young writers feel as if they don’t deserve recognition for their work just because they never had to write it on a typewriter. Just as I’m sure the former teen all-stars don’t feel guilty or ashamed of their early successes.

When I am reading queries, I never wonder how old the writer is. Honestly, I don’t care at all until they tell me, and even then I just say “hm.. that seemed unnecessary.” If you want to stick in at the end of your pitch that you are a freshman in high school (well, only if this is true), then go ahead. It might catch my eye ONLY if the novel is of any interest to me. And if you are a freshman in high school and researching agents at all, I think that’s pretty impressive, so please don’t apologize for it!

Likewise, I’ve received queries from people in their sixties and seventies who have also felt the need to tell me their ages. This, I understand even less. As with their younger counterparts, these writers also ask for forgiveness for being “so old,” especially if they do not have previous writing credentials. But when they’re not apologizing for things they cannot control, they are attributing various obstacles involved in completing their novels to their ages, as if being sixty-eight years old is somehow akin to having no legs, arms, or eyes.

If I reject a ninety-year-old, it’s because the novel wasn’t for me, not because the writer is ninety. And if I make an offer to a twelve-year-old, it’s because I loved his or her work, not because I love the idea of exploiting their wunderkind-ness to my advantage. The writing is what matters, and good writing transcends age. Always. 

Sure, I might be impressed if I read what I think is the next Gatsby, only to find out the writer is eleven, but age will never be a deal-breaker, whether positive or negative. On the flip side of that, sometimes it is obvious that a writer is not quite mature enough to tell the story he or she is trying to tell, but again, it has nothing to do with their actual age. In the same way a memoirist requires distance and perspective to create a truly effective piece, young writers need time and space and, more often, practice to create an objectively “good” story. Just like the rest of us.

So whether you were born in the Clinton administration or the Hoover,  please stop being so sorry and let your writing speak for itself.

Dear Sir or Madam

And so begins The Beatles’ writer’s anthem, “Paperback Writer,” whose lyrics are quite possibly the best example of what not to do in a query letter. (You may also remember my former colleague’s brilliant dramatic interpretation of these lyrics, here.) Generally, if you begin your query with the above-mentioned salutation, the agent you are querying will either a) groan, b) make fun of you via Twitter, or c) delete your query unread (this is a worst-case-scenario). 
There was a really great blog post today on Write It Sideways called Will Literary Agents Really Read Your Query Letter? that I think basically every writer who’s querying needs to read. Among their reasons why YOUR query might be getting deleted without even being read are:
  1. The manuscript is incomplete (if fiction)
  2. The agent doesn’t represent the author’s genre
  3. The letter isn’t personalized, but is part of a mass query (Dear agent…)
  4. The author hasn’t taken the time to research how to write a proper query letter
  5. The author hasn’t followed that agent’s submission guidelines
  6. The query or sample pages (if requested in the guidelines) are sent as an attachment
As a newer agent, and a writer myself, the term “instantly deleted” is terrifying, even if I’m the one doing the deleting. I try to be fair and give writers the benefit of the doubt. I’m aware that querying is hard. That said, agents, myself included, get easily frustrated when people don’t query “correctly” because there are a bazillion resources online on how to write a proper query, not to mention the agent-specific guidelines. (I’ve also heard writers complain that “it’s confusing because every agent has different guidelines.” This is true, but the differences aren’t usually that vast. If a writer can’t take the time to make minor adjustments, it’s not that unfair of a stretch to think, “Geesh, what’ll it be like if I ask for a revision?”)

Of the above examples of “potential instant deletion,” I’m guilty of #3 and #6. I delete mass queries and queries sent as attachments for what I hope are obvious reasons. (This includes “click this link for my query” emails.) I assume it is spam, and therefore it is dead to me. 

I also instantly delete “pre-queries” because they are so incredibly stupid. In case you don’t know (which I hope you, dear blog readers, don’t), pre-queries are emails that basically just ask if the writer can send a query. The answer is always, “YES! JUST SEND IT! WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME WITH SUCH A DUMB QUESTION!?” So, instead of getting an all-caps rant, they just get deleted.

There are agents out there, usually the more seasoned ones, who will delete your query for lesser reasons than the ones I mentioned above. You don’t want to fall victim to an instant deletion, so while it is a lot to remember and can be frustrating to accommodate to, pay attention to agent-specific guidelines and pet peeves; read articles and blog posts like the one on Write It Sideways; and stop sending things as attachments. Almost NO agent ever accepts attachments unless he or she asks for it. It might be the one guideline every agent agrees on. 

One last note: there is no such person as Curtis Brown. I am not Mr. or Ms. Brown. Thanks 🙂